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Housing Project Dispute Settled

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A dispute between Jewish and Puerto Rican groups which has kept a new housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side vacant for more than two years was ended when Federal Judge Mossir Lasker signed an order Friday approving a compromise settlement. Under the plan, which Judge Lasker called “a just settlement of a difficult and complex dispute,” apartments in two low-income buildings in the Seward Park Extension Urban Renewal area will be occupied on a 60 to 40 non-white to white ratio, including an estimated 120 Jewish families.

In complicated litigation which preceded the settlement, Judge Lasker had previously granted first priority to former occupants of buildings on the site which had been demolished to make room for the housing project. Judge Lasker said approval of the plan would prevent further delay in occupancy of the 360 apartments in the two 23-story buildings. He said the settlement offered a “nice balance, not only between the races but between the rights of the parties.”

Litigation began when former Puerto Rican residents brought suit because the City Housing Authority gave preference to families outside the designated area, most of them Jewish. The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), and the Legal Aid Society represented the Jewish tenants at the request of the United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side, coordinating agency for aid to the area’s Jewish poor. A COLPA spokesman said the Housing Authority initially granted 171 leases out of 360 to residents of nearby areas.

MAJOR CONSTITUTIONAL SIGNIFICANCE

After several lower court rulings, including one by Judge Lasker, in favor of the Puerto Rican suit, the federal Court of Appeals reversed the lower courts and ordered the case back to Judge Lasker for a trial of the issues, particularly the question of ghettoization. A series of conciliation meetings, to avoid a trial, followed, which led to the settlement approved by Judge Lasker.

The COLPA spokesman noted that the Court of Appeals decision in the case could have major constitutional significance on priorities in public housing projects. The appeals court upheld the contention of COLPA and the Legal Aid Society that the Housing Authority’s regulations giving preference in new buildings to prior site residents need not be applied automatically where the result would be creation of a non-white ghetto.

Under the ruling, also, the spokesman said, while religious beliefs may not normally be used as a basis for assignment of public housing apartments, Jewish families could be re-located from other public housing and assigned space in a concentrated area of a new project near a synagogue they used regularly, if their safety and physical well-being were jeopardized by their disbursement throughout an otherwise hostile community. In addition to local community leaders, Harvey Blitz and Dennis Rapps of COLPA, and Kalman Finkel and Helaine Barnett of the Legal Aid Society, represented the Jewish community of the area.

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